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Lesbian parents battle Nebraska for equal parental rights

The lawsuit challenges unconstitutional discrimination toward same-sex applicants in the parental acknowledgement process

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Erin Porterfield & Kristin Williams with their sons Kadin, 19 & Cameron, 16 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the ACLU of Nebraska)

LINCOLN – Two Omaha women and their teenage sons filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Lancaster County on Monday, seeking to establish full parenting protections and ensure same-sex parents in similar situations no longer face discriminatory treatment under outdated state laws and regulations.

The ACLU of Nebraska and Omaha law firm Koenig | Dunne have teamed up to serve as co-counsel on the case.

The lawsuit challenges unconstitutional discrimination toward same-sex applicants in the parental acknowledgement process.

Erin Porterfield and Kristin Williams started their family through Assisted Reproductive Technology in 2002. Each woman gave birth to one of their boys and each has always been an active and loving parent to both children. Each also has a court order establishing an in loco parentis relationship with the other son – a temporary legal status that acknowledges a person has put themselves in the position of a parent but stops short of full parental rights.

The women have unsuccessfully tried to work through options so that each mother is fully legally recognized as a parent of both sons. In 2018, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) denied an application to amend one son’s birth certificate and denied the request again after a hearing.

This summer, the women submitted Voluntary Acknowledgments of Parentage using amended gender-neutral versions of the current form used by DHHS, a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity that only serves to identify fathers. DHHS denied the acknowledgments on Sept. 29, listing “the only routes to legal parentage” in a letter, all of which are unavailable to the women. 

The lawsuit argues DHHS is violating constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process by refusing to follow state law for same-sex parents on the same terms as it does for unmarried opposite-sex parents.

“While we spend our parenting time the same as most good parents — showing up for show choir and band competitions, making sure homework is done, teaching values and manners, and gently guiding our boys to be their truest selves regardless of cultural expectations — we haven’t had the luxury of peace of mind that should something happen to one of us our boys would seamlessly be afforded the government benefits other families take for granted,” Williams said.

“Our sons are our entire world and we want to make sure we’re doing right by them,” Porterfield said. “Our boys have a right to the security of having both parents on their birth certificates, a required document in so many life changes and decisions. That’s why this matters to us. It’s about looking out for our sons.”

In an interview with WOWT TV channel 6, an NBC-affiliated television station in Omaha, Nebraska, the women told NBC News 6 reporter Gina Dvorak, “We were never able to marry because by the time the supreme court had awarded that right to gay people, we had split as a couple,” Williams said. “We continued to care for both of our children as any couple would with shared custody.”

Achieving full parental rights would allow both equal rights to make decisions about various aspects of care — from medical, to educational, to estate planning, etc. — for both their sons.

“So if I were to get hit by a bus and my will gave half my estate to Kadin, he could be taxed as if her were a stranger to me, and same is true if Erin passed and half her estate when to Cameron, he could be taxed as if he were a stranger to her,” Williams says.

“If they were in a terrible position to have to make decisions based on end of life decisions for me or for Kristin, the birth certificate, the parentage piece… I mean, it’s hard to even think about,” Porterfield said. “But that moment, you don’t want to haggle about who has decision making opportunity regarding end of life decisions for a parent.”

In addition to seeking court acknowledgement that both women are equal mothers to their sons, the lawsuit requests a declaration that DHHS must apply state law and regulations related to Voluntary Acknowledgments of Paternity without regard for the gender of the acknowledging parent. 

Sara Rips, ACLU of Nebraska Legal & Policy Counsel, said the lawsuit underscores the harm of laws and procedures that only work for one kind of family.

“This civil rights case is about equal treatment for families with same-sex parents,” Rips said. “Erin and Kristin made the choice together to start and raise a family. They have both been loving and involved moms to these boys since birth. I know that if one of them were a man, the department would have accepted their acknowledgment without any thought or inquiry. Instead, these women are facing discriminatory treatment that’s clearly unconstitutional. Once again, LGBTQ Nebraskans must appeal to the courts to affirm that they are entitled to the same treatment as anyone else.”

Recognition as parents would guarantee Porterfield and Williams’ equal rights to make decisions concerning the care of their boys, ranging from education to estate planning.

Angela Dunne, managing partner at Koenig | Dunne, said the case points to the need to equalize the treatment of parents across the state.

“In the area of family law, we are once again seeing same-sex families attempt to protect their most precious rights to parent only to be thwarted by gender-specific language that does not support the ever-changing face of families,” Dunne said. “We have a biological mom and an in loco parentis mom, and we are legally unable to permanently preserve their legal rights to their children and the children’s legal rights to have two parents. We hope this lawsuit will remedy this deficiency and protect our legally vulnerable families.”

This lawsuit is the ACLU of Nebraska’s second LGBTQ rights case this year. In March, the Nebraska Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of two married women who had been wrongfully denied an opportunity to adopt a child they have raised from birth.

Nebraska

Nebraska school board axes journalism over LGBTQ+ coverage

“You can’t censor a student newspaper you no longer have.” Ending student newspaper programs is becoming a more common form of censorship

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The last edition of the Northwest High School, Grand Island, Nebraska student run newspaper, the Saga

GRAND ISLAND, Ne. – For 54 years the Northwest High School student run newspaper, the Saga, had kept the generations of students who attended informed, entertained, and engaged in their school and its activities. In fact, according to the local Grand Island Independent newspaper, Northwest High student media, including Saga staffers, earned third place at the 2022 NSAA State Journalism Championship.

Returning students as school started this Fall Semester however will not have the paper to read or use as a resource after school administrators led by Northwest Superintendent Jeff Edwards killed the paper after its staff had published content in the 2022 school year-ending issue of the Saga newspaper, that included student editorials on LGBTQ topics, along with a news article titled “Pride and prejudice: LGBTQIA+” on the origins of Pride month and the history of homophobia.

The Grand Island Independent reported and which had printed the school paper on its press, was informed in late May “the (journalism and newspaper) program was cut because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue’s editorial content.”

On Sunday, May 22, a Northwest School District employee emailed the Grand Island Independent press and advertising teams to cancel the company’s Northwest Viking Saga printing services. Notification of staff and students of the program’s elimination came May 19, according to the employee. The June issue was printed on May 16.

Then the school district went further and eliminated the high school’s journalism program entirely. When the Grand Island Independent’s Education reporter Jessica Votipka asked Northwest Principal P.J. Smith why the program was shuttered, Smith referred the Independent’s questions to district superintendent Jeff Edwards, who declined to answer the questions of when and why the student paper was eliminated, saying only that it was “an administrative decision.”

According to the Independent’s reporting, Northwest Public Schools Board of Education vice president Zach Mader said there had been previous discussion about eliminating the newspaper if the school board could not control content it deemed inappropriate.

“The very last issue that came out this year, there was … a little bit of hostility amongst some,” Mader said. “There were editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ.” But he hedged on the actual reason for the demise of the half century journalism program.

However, school board President Dan Leiser said that the board had little to do with the decision instead saying that the board was “supportive” of Superintendent Edwards’ reasons to get rid of the program and the student newspaper.

The LGBTQ+ coverage also had its roots in the Saga’s writing staff as former Saga staff member Marcus Pennell, who is a trans male, was deadnamed in his byline in the last edition in the wake of an earlier conflict with school administrators last April.

The Saga staff was reprimanded in April after publishing preferred pronouns and names in bylines and articles, according to students. District officials told students to use only birth names going forward.

Pennell was forced to use his deadname which he told the Independent’s Votipka:

“The (name) thing was the first big blow,” he said.

Pennell said he has been subject to adversity because of being transgender, but hearing directly from the school administrators was different.

“It was the first time that the school had officially been, like, ‘We don’t really want you here,’” Pennell said. “You know, that was a big deal for me.”

Advocates for freedom of the press were angered by what is seen as blatant anti-First Amendment actions taken by the Superintendent Edwards on behalf of the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education.

Sara Rips, legal counsel for ACLU of Nebraska noted in her comments to the Independent:

“It sounds like a ham-fisted attempt to censor students and discriminate based on disagreement with perspectives and articles that were featured in the student newspaper.”

Nebraska Press Association attorney Max Kautsch, who specializes in media law in Nebraska and Kansas, noted that press freedom is protected in the U.S. Constitution.

“The decision by the administration to eliminate the student newspaper violates students’ right to free speech, unless the school can show a legitimate educational reason for removing the option to participate in a class … that publishes award-winning material,” Kautsch said. “It is hard to imagine what that legitimate reason could be.”

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for Student Press Law Center, told the Independent that ending student newspaper programs is becoming a more common form of censorship. The center is a nonpartisan group that advocates for student journalism press freedom.

“You can’t censor a student newspaper you no longer have.”

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has been working directly with the Saga’s most recent staff on potential recourse.

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Anti-LGBTQ+ group forces repeal of Lincoln LGBTQ rights ordinance

Two council members voting to rescind are openly gay. They said they voted to rescind fearing the measure would not survive at the ballot box

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Nebraska State Capitol building & downtown Lincoln (Photo by Chris Dyer)

LINCOLN, Ne. – The City Council in Nebraska’s capital city has rescinded an anti-discrimination measure passed by the city council on February14 of this year which updated Title 11 of the city’s municipal code.

Known as the “Fairness Ordinance,” it included language clarifying and updating protections related to race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability rights, family and martial status, as well as military and veteran status.

In a 4-3 vote Monday to rescind, the city had faced a successful petition effort by the Nebraska Family Alliance, a vehemently anti-LGBTQ+ conservative group that would have put the measure on the November ballot.

The Nebraska Family Alliance had launched the petition effort a day after the measure was adopted by the council in February, painting the effort as a “transgender bathroom ordinance.” The group contended the measure will force businesses, churches, and private schools to allow “trans-identified biological men to use women’s restrooms, locker rooms and showers if they identify as women.” 

The anti-LGBTQ+ group characterized the council’s action as allowing broad definitions of sex, public accommodations, and sexual harassment. According to Bowling citizens could be held liable for tens of thousands of dollars in fines simply for expressing their religious/Christian beliefs if it has the “effect” of creating an “offensive” environment.

Council members voting to rescind — Tom Beckius and James Michael Bowers — are openly gay. They said they voted to rescind the protection for fear the measure would not survive at the ballot box. Beckius also noted that LGBTQ members of the community are already protected under a 2020 Supreme Court ruling saying that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under Civil Rights Act.

The Associated Press reported Councilman Bennie Shobe, who had declined to say how he would vote before Monday, joined Beckius, Bowers and Richard Meginnis in voting to rescind. Shobe, who is Black, said he did so because civil rights should not be decided by public vote. He noted that his parents went to segregated schools and lived as second-class citizens in Kentucky until the U.S. Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Act guaranteed their rights under the law.

“However, if the civil rights of my parents had been put to a vote of the people, I am confident they would have been denied,” Shobe said.

Had the petition been added as ballot referendum, ACLU of Nebraska Legal and Policy Counsel Sara Rips said her group would have challenged it in court.

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Nebraska capital city LGBTQ+ “Fairness Ordinance” challenged

Critics allege citizens could be held liable for tens of thousands of dollars in fines simply for expressing their religious/Christian beliefs

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Nebraska State Capitol building & downtown Lincoln (Photo by Chris Dyer)

LINCOLN – A measure passed by the city council of Nebraska’s capital city a month ago on February14 updated Title 11 of the city’s municipal code. Known as the “Fairness Ordinance,” it included language clarifying and updating protections related to race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability rights, family and martial status, as well as military and veteran status.

Critics contend that the measure will force businesses, churches, and private schools to allow “trans-identified biological men to use women’s restrooms, locker rooms and showers if they identify as women.” 

The Executive Director of the Nebraska Family Alliance Karen Bowling characterized the council’s action as allowing broad definitions of sex, public accommodations, and sexual harassment. According to Bowling citizens could be held liable for tens of thousands of dollars in fines simply for expressing their religious/Christian beliefs if it has the “effect” of creating an “offensive” environment.

“We want Lincoln to be a fair and welcoming place for all people. Unfortunately, there was nothing fair about the ordinance passed by the city council,”  Bowling said.

The Nebraska Family Alliance the day after the council action launched the “Let Us Vote” referendum initiative, to gather signatures that would force the City Council to put the “Fairness Ordinance” on the ballot in November or rescind the law entirely.

The referendum initiative needed 4,137 signatures, equivalent to 4% of voters in Lincoln. But petitions were signed by more than 18,500 voters in just 15 days Bowling announced in a press conference last week. 

“Today is about due process,” she said, “to give a voice to Lincoln residents who love their city and love their neighbors. These petitions were circulated in every area of the city and every demographic,” Bowling said, adding that they received signatories from over 72 churches. 

“Slovic, Ukranian, Vietnamese and Spanish-speaking churches of both Protestant and Catholic denominations have participated. Our friends from the Islamic Center also signed petitions as well as Republicans, Democrats and Independents,”  she said.

She added that the initiative is “nonpartisan” and included people of different perspectives. 

“Both proponents and opponents to the ordinance signed petitions because they believe the gravity of the issue should go to the vote of the people or the city council should rescind their decision,” Bowling said.

The ACLU of Nebraska is committed to educating and mobilizing voters if a challenge to Lincoln’s new nondiscrimination updates goes to voters the organization said in a press release.

“We’re proud to support this ordinance along with Lincoln’s business leaders, religious communities, young professionals and community organizations,” ACLU of Nebraska Legal and Policy Counsel Sara Rips said.

“It’s unfortunate that a vocal fraction of our community has chosen to use harmful and hateful misinformation to divide our city in an attempt to turn the clock back on basic human rights. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly on the job, when creating a home for themselves and their families, and in public life. We are ready to work to ensure Lincoln supports equality and to make sure no one in our community is left behind,” Rips added.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reported that at least four council members said they support putting the policy up for a vote. Such a vote would occur either in a special election or in November’s general election. 

However, Dave Shively, Lancaster County’s election commissioner, told the Journal-Star that Nebraska state law doesn’t permit the holding of a special election so close to the date of a regularly scheduled election. 

 

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Nebraska ballot initiative would eliminate state Board of Education

A sponsor of the petition, said the initiative’s goal is to “give the power back to the people that are dealing directly with the children”

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

LINCOLN – A petition drive to eliminate the Nebraska Board of Education, shifting oversight to the governor’s office, is underway. 

The proposal, which would change the state constitution, plans to replace the Nebraska Department of Education, the state Board of Education and education commissioner with a new Office of Education. The office’s director would be appointed by the governor, contingent on a state Senate confirmation. It would need 125,000 signatures by next July to make it to November’s ballot. 

Kelli Brady, a sponsor of the petition, said the initiative’s goal is to “give the power back to the people that are dealing directly with the children,” according to the Omaha World-Herald.

Yet, critics say it would do the opposite and give too much power to the governor. 

“I think Nebraska really is in good hands with the way we have it,” said Maureen Nickels, president of the state Board of Education.

The petition is one of an onslaught of “Restore the Good Life” initiatives — including a Critical Race Theory ban and a vaccine requirement ban, among others — sponsored by Republican Michael Connely, a 2022 gubernatorial candidate in Nebraska. 

“There is no time to wait until after the elections in 2022 before we begin to move on fixing these problems,” Connely wrote in a blog post about the initiative in July. “There is no time to discuss positions. We must act now! Step up and help me do it. YOU take the power.”

“I want this one on the 2022 ballot even more than I want the Medical Freedom (no required Vax) and 2nd Amendment initiatives,” he added, noting it “will be harder though” because of the amount of signatures needed. 

In May, Connely took to Facebook to warn of “socialist indoctrination” in schools. “It is SO infested now, we MUST burn down the house and build a smaller cleaner house,” he said. 

The measure comes after clashes between Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Education Department. 

Earlier this year, the board considered adopting new health education measures that would have incorporated teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation. Rickets strongly disapproved of the standards. 

“The new standards from the department would not only teach young children age-inappropriate content starting in kindergarten, but also inject non-scientific, political ideas into curriculum standards,” he said. 

The board abandoned the proposed recommendations. 

In a statement to the World-Herald, Rickets did not take a stance on the ballot initiative. 

“The Nebraska Department of Education should respect that parents are the primary educators of their children, and the agency must continue to be accountable to the people of Nebraska,” he said. “Any changes to the structure of the department would need to be approved by voters through an amendment to the Nebraska State Constitution.”

Nebraska State College System board passes gender identity policy opposed by Ricketts:

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A school sees a lice check- Lakota people sense centuries of repression

A Lakota lesbian couple’s battle after a school violated their family’s culture in the same manner that Native culture has long been violated

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Norma LeRoy, 36 (left) and Alice Johnson, 42, (right) hold their daughters ages 7 and 12 in Valentine City Park in Valentine, Nebraska on May 21. (Photo by Matthew Hansen)

By Chris Bowling | KILGORE, CHERRY COUNTY, Ne. – It’s early summer and a Lakota woman stares into the trees, deep past the leaves and their shadows, her dark eyes misting up. Not far away, her daughters run through the park, a creek-fed oasis in the middle of the arid, amber Sandhills of Nebraska.

Norma LeRoy tries to understand why a school secretary cut her two little girls’ hair without her consent in the spring of 2020. And then, days later, did it again. The secretary was checking for lice, LeRoy was told — lice the mother said they never found. 

It’s a new semester now, and her daughters are pinballing through the park. But LeRoy still feels the weight of those snips of hair, feels like few in this remote region of Cherry County understand what they took from her family. It’s why the 36-year-old Rosebud Sioux has to turn away from her kids, toward the trees, to shield them from her tears.

To her people, hair is sacred. Cutting it outside Lakota tradition carries consequences.

“Happiness, the goodness, the wellness of life, that takes all that away,” LeRoy said. “And so that’s the reason why we, as Native Americans, look at our hair strongly. Because it comes from the spirit world, and it was given to us.”

In Kilgore, population 79, less than four miles from South Dakota’s Rosebud reservation, hair cutting dredges up dark, generations-long history. Stories of boarding schools where they sheared the jet black hair of Native Americans to make them look more like white people. Like those boarding school kids, LeRoy and her wife Alice Johnson say their little girls — ages 12 and 7 —  also lost something. They don’t laugh the same way. They don’t play like they used to. And immediately before and after the hair cutting, three of their grandmothers died.

Wàkuza.

It invited bad luck, LeRoy said.

When the Lakota mothers offered to bring cultural sensitivity training to the school they got little response, they said. When they explained why cutting hair went against their religion, culture and traditions, they said they were ignored.

“You don’t get lice if you have clean hair,” LeRoy said the secretary told her.

Other residents say the secretary’s good heart shouldn’t be ignored, either.

George Johnson, a retired rancher in Cody, 15 miles from Kilgore, said he’s known the school secretary’s family for years. Johnson, who now brews small-batch vinegars through George Paul Vinegar, served on the school board decades ago when it hired the secretary. 

Without a principal, the secretary led the school, Johnson said, caring for his kids and many others. She advocated for children whose families couldn’t afford backpacks, coats or boots. Occasionally, the school has trimmed hair to stop the spread of lice, Johnson said. While he doesn’t know what happened in this case, Johnson said if it happened, there was a reason.

“[She] did not do this out of animosity, punishment or anything else,” Johnson said. “She did it to help the children and keep the school safe. She’s not that type of person, I guarantee you.”

On May 17, the two mothers filed a lawsuit in federal court in Lincoln against the Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools district. The mothers allege their first amendment rights were violated.

“It’s definitely resonating with parents,” said Rose Godinez, their attorney with the ACLU of Nebraska. “When you send a child to school, you expect them to come back to you safe, not violated, and that’s not what happened here.”

Calls, emails, text messages and Facebook messages sent to the secretary, school superintendent, former superintendent and all six school board members went either unanswered or the person declined to comment. The school’s lawyer, Chuck Wilbrand of Knudsen Law Firm in Lincoln, also declined to comment.

On July 15, the school and its attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case. School officials were unaware hair cutting was culturally insensitive, the motion reads, and the school’s former superintendent agreed not to cut the children’s hair in the future a little over a week after the parents discovered the first cutting.

But that did little to appease LeRoy and Johnson, who feel the school violated their family’s culture in the same manner that Native culture has long been violated.

“I just want people to understand that you cannot touch another person’s child,” Johnson said. “Every religion has beliefs. Every culture has beliefs that we have rules that we live by. And I want people to know that.”

Star Women

To understand the importance of hair to the Lakota, you need to know about the star woman.

Long ago, the story goes, a woman sat in the Big Dipper. Lonely, she grew her hair long enough to reach Earth. When she got here, she cut it.

“She cut it because she needed to come down here to build a life,” LeRoy said. “And for her to build that life, she used her hair. And so this is why we say that there are strict restrictions on women with long hair. Because their spirit lives within their hair. And once you cut that, part of their spirit’s gone.”

LeRoy grew up on these stories. She learned the Lakota language, ceremonies and traditions from her grandmother on the Rosebud reservation, where she has lived most her life. Johnson, 42, has family who live on the reservation, but grew up in Kilgore with a Native mother and white stepfather. 

The two Lakota women met on Facebook in 2015 and married a year later. Each had daughters from previous marriages and after marrying had one more. They are raising their four children with Lakota traditions.

But they are also raising them in a small, mostly white, Nebraska town — which wasn’t a problem until March 2, 2020.

“I was like, ‘Wait, who cut your hair?’” Johnson said when her 10-year-old daughter told her  about the incident. “And then I broke down. I broke down crying and I was like, ‘How could she take that from us?’” 

The girls told their mother the school secretary did it. When they called the superintendent, he said it was a head lice check. The school’s student handbook doesn’t outline how lice checks are performed.

In its motion to dismiss, the school district says while hair cutting is not written policy, “…the School District would sometimes cut a single strand of hair that contained the louse and tape it to a piece of paper to show the family.” The school district said it made steps to remedy the situation, agreeing on March 13 not to cut the children’s hair again. It returned one strand to the family, to burn in accordance with Lakota beliefs.

The mothers say another daughter, who is autistic, said on March 5 her hair was cut. As the parents checked their 6-year-old’s head, they said patches of hair were missing. The school denies that allegation. 

“I didn’t want her to cut it out,” one daughter, who wants to remain anonymous, whispered to a reporter.

“Did you tell her that?”

“No. She would have just cut it anyway.”

After the hair cutting, the two mothers drove to the Rosebud reservation. They went to see Waycee His Holy Horse, a spiritual leader, reservation police officer and LeRoy’s cousin.

When he saw their van pull into his driveway, His Holy Horse said he knew something was wrong.

“That’s very damaging, not just to their physical [health] but to their emotional, psychological and spiritual well being,” His Holy Horse said. “Their self image is going to  collapse.”

That night, they performed sacred rituals to protect the children’s spirits. When it happened again two days later, the family returned to His Holy Horse.

“[I felt] hurt, betrayal, anger and confusion,” said Lila Kills in Sight, the spiritual leader’s mother who bathed the children with a sponge during the rituals. “We’re in a new era and I just thought everyone knew about Native people and how we do things.

“They acted like they didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Kill The Indian, Save The Man”

As the story circulated on social media, raw emotions surfaced. Grandparents shared stories of how their hair had been cut in boarding schools decades ago.

“Having the seventh, eighth, tenth generation having to go through it again…I mean, it’s just a big eye opener because it’s being re-lived,” LeRoy said. 

On March 3, 1819, nearly 201 years to the day before the children’s hair was cut, the United States signed the Civilization Fund Act. That ushered in an era from 1860 to 1978 when boarding schools nationwide, including in Nebraska, separated Native children from their families, punished them for speaking their language, and often cut their long hair.

“…All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” Capt. Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, famously said in 1892.

In 1884, Christian missionaries came to South Dakota’s Yankton Reservation and took eight-year-old Zitkála-Šá from her mother. 

“I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly,” Zitkála-Šá wrote in 1900 of her hair cutting. “In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair. I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit…now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”

Native children at the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1890. For more than a century, Native students’ long hair was routinely sheared at boarding schools. The hair cutting, part of an attempt to assimilate the students into white culture, violated Native religious and cultural beliefs, Native leaders say.
(Public domain photo)

On March 9 this year, Johnson, LeRoy and a procession of grandmothers drove to the Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools Board of Education meeting to tell these stories. Board members listened as the women read a letter, spoke, and asked for cultural sensitivity training, say the mothers. When they finished, Adam Naslund, school board president, thanked them for sharing, according to meeting minutes.

The mothers and the ACLU said the school has since declined to implement cultural sensitivity training. In its motion to dismiss, the school district says it never discriminated, took quick action to prevent future hair cuttings, and argued no further training is needed. 

As for the fact it brings up memories of boarding schools, the motion reads “this could not be further from the truth.” 

But Sandy White Hawk, an educator and advocate, says these events have a lot more to do with both past and present — touching on themes of assimilation and forced separation from Native culture — than school officials may want to admit.

In 1955, when White Hawk was an 18-month-old baby on the Rosebud reservation, a social worker or church member passed her through the window of a red pickup truck into the hands of her white, adopted family, who later told her the story. She grew up in Wisconsin disconnected from her culture, ceremonies and language. She returned to Rosebud for the first time in 1988 and met her birth family.

“I remember I used to watch their faces…and from time to time they would look away,” remembered White Hawk. “And I interpreted that as a sadness in their heart for what had happened. I never shared with them…how awful it was, the situation that I grew up in, because I could see they certainly had a history as well.”

In Nebraska, Native children are overrepresented in foster care by eight times their share of the population, according to a 2017 report. Nationally, native children commit suicide at 1.6 times the national rate, more than any other race, according to federal data. Native kids in foster care are at even greater risk of suicide.

The realities aren’t new. In one photo, LeRoy’s own great-grandfather, Jake Kills in Sight, leans toward President John F. Kennedy to talk about the treatment of the Lakota. But, to White Hawk, what happened in Kilgore shows little has changed, she said.

“The reason that they cut their hair is they knew that they could do it without being punished or disciplined,” she said.

Efforts to heal are occurring. At the Genoa U.S. Indian Industrial School near Columbus, researchers have spent years documenting the atrocities that took place, said Margaret Jacobs, project co-director and University of Nebraska-Lincoln history professor. 

She’s also worked with journalist Kevin Abourezk, a Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation, on stories of tribal land reclamation in Nebraska. From the Kansas border to the fertile farmland on the edge of the Sandhills, white landowners have returned acreage to the tribes who originally roamed it, Jacobs said.

Healing is also taking place within tribes. White Hawk started attending pow wows and wrote a song to welcome fostered Native kids back into the community. That work led to a University of Minnesota study detailing the psychological impacts of foster care for Native people.

Advocates want to see this conversation go national, and hope that Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the U.S. Department of the Interior, will help lead it.

In tiny Kilgore, the conversation is taking place in court filings. After the hair cutting incident, one of the mothers’ friends suggested the ACLU of Nebraska. Now they hope the civil case can serve as a voice for those little girls who suffered in silence in generations past.

“[That little girl] didn’t have someone to speak up for her and say, ‘Don’t cut my child’s hair,’” Johnson said. “Now times have changed enough that we can speak up about it.”

‘We’re Voices’

The early-summer wind blows across the scruffy Sandhills as the two mothers and their daughters climb through the brush. It’s overcast in early May and the family has a clear view over the bluffs carved by the Niobrara River. Long ago this fertile valley attracted more than 20 Native tribes who fished and hunted along its banks. In its canyons they found solitude, contemplation and in the river itself, a sacred meaning.

Times have changed. LeRoy and Johnson pull up in a packed van, their 11-year-old daughter in the back scrolling through her TikTok account, which has thousands of followers.

(Photo by Matthew Hansen)

As they squeeze together for a family photo, the magnitude of the moment isn’t lost on the parents. They think this is their chance to do something about the horrors inflicted on their people generations ago. They know they can’t heal what’s been broken, but they also know they can’t sit silently. 

“We’re speaking up about it, and we’re making people aware this is still happening to this date,” Johnson said. “We’re voices, not only for our girls, but for a lot of people.”

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Chris Bowling is the editor of the Omaha Reader. A native of Cincinnati, Bowling graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2018. While at UNL, Bowling was a reporter on “The Wounds of Whiteclay.” The student group project won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Grand Prize — the first time student journalists had won that award.

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The preceding article was previously published by The Flatwater Free Press and is republished by permission.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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Nebraska

Threats of violence and death shuts down Nebraska drag queen story hour

After discussions and consultations with Lincoln Police, the museum and the LGBTQ+ group citing safety concerns cancelled the event.

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Screenshot of the Lincoln Children’s Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska. ABC News affiliate coverage

LINCOLN – A private LGBTQ+ event scheduled for after hours this past Saturday at the Lincoln Children’s Museum in Nebraska’s capital city was cancelled after the museum and the event’s organizers received a torrent of abusive violent threats, including ones that were simply death threats.

Longtime local drag performer Waylon Werner-Bassen, who is the president of the board of directors of LGBTQ advocacy group OUTNebraska had organized the event alongside Drag Queen Story Hour Nebraska.

Bassen told the Lincoln Star-Journal in an interview last week on Tuesday that the scheduled RSVP only two-hour event, which was accessible through Eventbrite, had garnered a conformed attendee list of approximately 50 people.

Mandy Haase-Thomas, director of operations and engagement for the Lincoln Children’s Museum in an email the Star-Journal confirmed the event was invitation-only private, not sponsored by the museum and to be held after museum’s open-to-the-public hours.

According to Bassen, immediately after the event was announced the threats commenced, some of which included death threats. After discussions and consultations with officials from the Lincoln Police Department, the Lincoln Children’s Museum and Bassen’s group citing safety concerns cancelled the event.

Officer Luke Bonkiewicz, a spokesperson for the LPD said that the matter was under investigation and as such would not comment other than to acknowledge that the threats were found to be credible.

In an Instagram post the museum expressed its dismay over the event’s cancellation.

Community reaction was swift and uniformly in support of OutNebraska and the drag queen story hour event with the city’s Mayor weighing in along with a supervisor with the Lincoln Police Department.

The ACLU of Nebraska along with other supporters which included state lawmakers Senator Adam Morfeld and Senator Tony Vargas also weighed in.

OutNebraska and the museum have both stated that they will reschedule the event. In a Facebook post Out Nebraska noted: “We look forward to working with Lincoln Children’s Museum to reschedule this as an entirely private event. It’s so sad when hate threatens families with children. All parents want their children to be safe. Because we could not be certain that it would be safe we will cancel this weekend and reschedule for another time — this time without a public portion of the invitation. We will be in touch with the families who have already registered with more information about when we are rescheduling.”

In related news the LPD not only recently celebrated LGBTQ Pride Month, but the designated person nominated at the end of June by the Mayor to be the department’s new Chief, is SFPD Commander Teresa Ewins, the San Francisco California Police Department’s highest-ranking LGBTQ member.

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